Thorns FC

FARLEY | Their unbeaten streak is over, but there's still reason to like what we saw from the Thorns

20210829 crystal dunn at reign

The Portland Thorns’ eight-game unbeaten streak in NWSL play came to an end today in Seattle, where two first-half goals from OL Reign attacker Megan Rapinoe led her team to a 2-1 victory over the NWSL’s leaders. The Thorns are now four points up on the second-place North Carolina Courage while OL’s win vaults the Reign from fifth to third in the standings.

“We weren't our best today, unfortunately,” Thorns head coach Mark Parsons said after the game. “We still managed to be in there. We could have scored two or three [goals] in the first half, the first 20 minutes, but the game got away from us.”

“It's a shame that the two goals went that way in the first half,” Parsons lamented, “because I think we could have found our feet at halftime, and [played] the second half like we did the first 20, 25 [minutes].”

The Reign deserve credit for how they wrestled away control. Though the Thorns began strongly and forced much of the first 15 minutes to be played in OL’s half of the field, once the Reign collected themselves, the half played out on their terms. An approach that saw OL’s attackers give Portland’s backline time on the ball, giving the Thorns 60.8 percent of the game’s possession, allowed the Reign to constrict space in midfield and have an advantage when trying to recover loose balls. Both of OL’s goals came after turnovers in the middle turned into quick opportunities in transition, with the Reign playing into space wide before moving back toward goal.

“I thought they tactically caused us a couple of issues, and they were clinical,” Parsons said. “They took one of their chances, and they finished their penalty …”

“Somehow, we clawed back in, and then the second half was just way too open. Not the type of game that we like to play.”

Perhaps not, but the Thorns were hardly bad. Portland ended up outshooting the Reign, 19-15, and had the edge in shots on target, 6-4. Early in the first half, the Thorns nearly took the lead on a Christine Sinclair shot which, taken in the fifth minute from near the penalty spot in, hit Sarah Bouhaddi’s crossbar. Angela Salem, eventually the Thorns’ goalscorer, and Sophia Smith also had early chances before the Reign came into their own.

Whereas in Portland’s previous game, at home on Wednesday night against Gotham FC, the Thorns carried their dominance into halftime, Sunday’s control waned early. For Parsons, part of the reason was the fact that his team had to play on Wednesday, as well as the Saturday before that, as well as the Wednesday before that. Sunday’s game was Portland’s fifth in 15 days.

“I'd say mentally, we really run out of capacity,” Parsons admitted. “Physically, their players were tiring a lot more and having to make subs. We were still moving and still going. Our team is just built differently. Mentally, probably just too many games in this period.

“I thought we struggled against Gotham in the second half. Thought that was a tough half for us, and you could clearly see it was catching up. And then today, first 20, 25 before their goal. there was one team in this game. The ball was only in one half. it was brilliant football. It was exciting football. And then we just started to make some off decisions.”

An opponent that has players like Rapinoe, Jessica Fishlock, Eugenie Le Sommer and Dzenifer Maroszán has a way of doing that to you. It shouldn’t be forgotten that the OL Reign are one of the most talented teams in the NWSL. The biggest question around them this season was what would happen when their full team was together. Three prominent pieces didn’t join the squad until after the European season was over. Based on tonight’s performance, any doubts about Bouhaddi, Le Sommer and Marozan’s adaptation can be put aside. The Reign are clear contenders in the NWSL.

In that sense, this loss feels a lot like the Thorns’ last one, on June 28 at the Courage. Games like that and this evening’s are ones Portland want to win, but it’s no surprise when they don’t. Playing on the road is hard, and the Courage and Reign might be among the top three teams in the NWSL. Unless you think the Thorns’ standard is undefeated, these are the points they’re supposed to drop.

At some point, though, the Thorns want to get beyond “supposed to,” or any other expectation that also applies to other teams. Part of what you should get when you’re four points up on the league is a new set of standards. Being good enough to expect wins in places like North Carolina and Seattle would be an accomplishment of its own.

The Thorns aren’t there, yet, but as Sunday showed, they aren’t that far off. The Reign earned a valuable three points, but Portland showed how close they are to having a higher standard for themselves.